So I think on some level my long-term ability to fit my square peg into the round hole of organized religion was doomed from the start, whatever the dogma. I feel guilty about leaving my Catholic roots behind when I start to think about how it impacts my ability to create traditions for our family. It may be a lazy way to think about things, but that sure would have been a no-brainer way to go. Literally, ALL of the structure in place. Filling in the gaps will require some creative thinking.
I hope I haven’t seemed too hard on the Catholic Church in these posts. As I have mentioned, I got a lot out of my own Catholic upbringing. I don’t miss anything at all about the teachings surrounding sexuality and science not to mention equal rights, but in terms of teaching me how to treat others in a general “golden rule” sense? They did a bang-on job. They taught me so well, in fact, I started to see the disconnect between the cushy lives of the upper echelon in the church and the devout folk who worshipped at their altars. When I’d see ladies pulling cash from their Louis Vuitton monogrammed bags, I’d mentally do the math on what kind of help they could offer if they put the bag itself into the offering plate and just kept the cash out of it. There are a few things I DO miss about being Catholic:
1.The ritual of the Mass – I love the chanting, the kneeling, the rote nature of the whole she-bang. Even 20+years later, I’ve got mad Mass muscle memory and can follow along with the priests reciting all of the prayers and songs. I was never someone who thought the Mass was particularly beautiful, but there is a comfort for me in knowing that you can walk into any church in any place in the world and pick up right wherever you left off, just like an old friend.
2.Confession – People always blather on and on about Catholic guilt, but I never suffered from it. I’m pretty sure the main reason for this was Confession. No matter what sort of sin you commit, as long as you are willing to share with an anonymous priest in Confession, you are absolved of your wrong-doings. This might be the coolest and/or most disturbing fact of life as a Catholic. You can do ANYTHING and get absolution. It is up to the priest what sort of penance they assign for the sins you’ve committed, but in my childhood sinning experience (vanilla as it was) I usually garnered some combination of Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s. Like an actual number. You lied to your mom and cheated on a test? That’ll be four Hail Mary’s and two Our Father’s, please. Hit your little brother and pretend to be sick so you could stay home from school? Please say two Our Father’s and three Hail Mary’s. It made you wonder. What if I had done something truly horrific? “Thank you, Mr. Bin Laden. For your sins please say four million Hail Mary’s and a bazillion Our Father’s. Now you may go.
Most of us knew our parish priests pretty well and they us so if I ever did anything truly heinous the temptation would have been to skip over to another parish where they didn’t know me at all. Around the time I was growing up priests were also holding confessions in the more consultative, but less mysterious face-to-face manner. I was a complete coward, so I never took the plunge. Why would I want to be sitting knee to knee and eye to eye with my confessor? Talk about a buzzkill. In matters of Confession, I went strictly old school. You’d step into the confessional booth, a tiny, dark (soundproof?), decidedly womb-like chamber with a padded kneeler and a tiny window directly in front of your face. In my memory it all felt very secure and cozy and velvet-lined. After you had come into the Confessional and knelt down, the little window would slide open to reveal yet another, more porous screen. The priest was behind here. You could usually see him in profile, but a slightly pixelated version of him. I was just ditzy enough to usually not remember my list of sins so at this point I was often in the awkward position of having to manufacture bad behavior just to participate and keep the ritual going. Which, technically speaking, meant that I was sinning in the process. I was kind of a weird kid. But good times! There was nothing like the feeling of strolling out of church after confession. Free as a bird, light on your feet. Conscience clear and ready to sin again.
3. Freaky Apparitions and miracles – Ok. Let’s call this Visions of the Virgin Mary or Jesus or the Saints. There is a long historical precedent for normal folks getting visits from God in the form of visions, bushes, and what not going all the way back to the beginning of the Old Testament. In recent years, however, these sightings have taken a turn for the absurdly food-related. Jesus has shown himself in tortillas, Mary in grilled cheese, there’s even been a sighting of Mother Teresa in a cinnamon bun, better known as the “nun bun.”.
I think due in part to my own literal leanings, I liked these sightings. They seemed in a way less crazy to me and more corporal, which is what I was lacking in my own belief system. Yes, yes, yes all of this talk about the Holy Spirit was fine and dandy, but I needed to see it to believe it. I was (and am) a Doubting Thomas if I can’t put my hand out and touch something.
I wish this story was more colorful, but the fact is that I rode in relative silence to the town alongside my fellow pilgrims, and as expected, there were a lot of vendors selling souvenirs outside. The actual pilgrimage site, which is a hill outside of the town, has become a Stations of the Cross site (which is both a series of physical representations of the walk Christ took to his Crucifixion, and the devotions performed by Catholics everywhere to commemorate that event). I decided to make the “hike” up this hill, which was how I saw it – a nice way to get some exercise and participate in another ritual. I was initially disappointed by the hill’s size. Puny, in my estimation. This would be a short hike. But then when I looked around, about 20-30 of the people with us were making the trek ON THEIR KNEES. Here is a photo of the rocky outcropping called a hill.
Now, if my mom were along, I’m quite sure she would have seen this activity for what it was – an act of sacrifice and prostration in front of God. I just thought it seemed over-dramatic, pointless and kind of loopy. I’m not the target demographic for this particular move, obviously. After we all reconvened at the summit (me in my hiking boots and some other folks with their bloody knees), we headed back to town for the traditional Mass. On the way, our tour guide pointed out one of the “original 6” driving my in his little Skoda. The shrieks and rubber necking that went on in our bus was behavior you might expect to witness at a One Direction concert from a bunch of 12-year-old girls, not the motley crew of mostly middle aged and elderly westerners that we were. Cray cray. Back in town, my most revelatory moment (I’m always able to seize on the point that is simply not the point) were all of the languages you could have your Confession told in. There were placards next to a very long line of confessional booths and as a priest would walk out to his booth, he would grab the placard of his language. Of which there seemed to be about 50. I did the mental math again. That meant there had to be at least 30 or so priests (I think that is even a conservative estimate) ready at the gate to offer Confession in English or Polish or Swahili or Thai. That blew my mind. Leave it to me to come to a pilgrimage site and find the wonder in linguistic logistics!
4.Lastly, I do admire “faith.” I wish that I had a singular belief in a God. But to me, too often people who believe they have the answer are too quick to believe everyone else is incorrect. And that doesn’t sit right with me. I like to think there are many paths to the truth. The most devout and honest believers will tell you there is no true faith without doubt, and that has often been the carrot I find most appealing at times when I wonder if my path is the correct one for me. My doubts can be harnessed and mastered! But then I realize that I’m kidding myself. I've got to rely on myself and I've got to follow my own path, however twisty it gets.
Hi tiny readership! Apologies for neglecting the story of my spiritual odyssey for the past couple of days. I'll be back to it tomorrow. I am tending to some personal bidness. Thanks for your patience and thanks also for all of the public and private messages you have been sending. They mean the world to me. Until then, here are a few of the things Daisy has been saying lately that we now find adorable and that we might soon forget she ever did (heartbreaking, but true).
Dink - a drink
Heppoo - Will you help me with this, mama?
Peepee boo - peekaboo
Reebbook! - read me this book, please!
A, B, C, Yay! - her version of the ABC song (sometimes she gets all the way to G). She also does not sing the Itsy Bitsy Spider song, but will do ALL of the hand motions along with Townes' singing voice almost perfectly.
BeeBee - Baby
Change Die-Pah - Change my diaper please.
Daisy also does "Bye Bye" like a champ and can high five.
Peace Out! (no explanation needed)
You guys. Did you know that you don’t even need to believe in God to be a Buddhist? It’s true. See that pile of rocks over there? You can make that little pile you’re your own personal Jesus. Well, not really. But isn’t that something? No need to believe in a God? Nothing to kill or die for? No religion too? Hmmm. Now that’s a religion after my own heart and soul. I’ve been doing some soul searching recently in an effort to better understand my own feelings about religion/spirituality. We now have two children and I’ve been wondering if we need to put some structure in place around what we teach them. I’m pretty confident that Tim and I are doing most things right with the kids, but “planning” in particular is not our strong suit as a couple and I’m not sure flying by the seat of the pants is an excellent philosophy in matters of faith. Tim might disagree. I know I want our kids to grow up with a healthy curiosity for the world and ALL of the colors of the people/faiths in it. I want them to be respectful but skeptical of any dogmatic agenda. I want our kids to feel comfortable questioning authority, whatever the subject.
So if we were to start attending a church and Townes and Daisy received ANY messages of intolerance in general but as it relates to homosexuality or women’s rights in particular, I’m afraid I would feel like a completely irresponsible parent. The last place that should be judgy or selling shame is a place founded on the very principle of unconditional love and acceptance. Something else that I thought bugged me about Catholicism, but on closer examination actually annoys me about most organized religions in general, is the humorlessness of the faithful when it comes to questions of faith . That’s why I dig on this guy.
For me, it’s important that the kids not be given rigid guidelines as to what is “true” or “correct” as it relates to matters of spirituality. While I personally feel positively about the “road map to a moral life” that the Catholic Church gave me, I don’t think it is the only way or the “right” way, even though that was pretty much drilled into my own head in parochial school starting in kindergarten. One of the things I really admire about my own parents is that they did raise us to ask questions and challenge the status quo. It’s not lost on me that one of the main reasons I felt okay with leaving the church is that my parents gave my sister and me a safe environment to make big decisions for ourselves. I got to a point in my own life where the structure of the Church no longer worked for me, and because my mom and dad taught me that is okay to stand alone when something does not feel right for you, I was able to apply this lesson to stepping away from the Church. I wasn’t interested in being a “Cafeteria Catholic” in that some of the Church’s big issues were also my personal big issues and I felt me and the Pope were philosophically stuck in a Sergio Leone movie. Seeing as I really didn’t have a personal relationship with God to begin with, my life has not felt devoid of meaning or direction since I stopped attending Mass. At the same time, while I used to tell myself that I just didn’t believe in this Lord and Savior stuff, lately I’m realizing that my own personal spirituality is maybe a bit more complicated than I initially thought. I’m teasing out what I believe and reflecting on where it revealed (and continues to reveal itself) in my life.
So. The Buddhists. I’ve been aware of the Buddhists as background noise for years. I studied World Religions as a Freshman in college and I had seen the iconic photo of the Vietnamese monk who had self-immolated as protest against the south Vietnamese government’s persecution of Buddhists. I was a huge fan of non-violent civil disobedience, though I suppose that in the strictest definition of non-violence, setting yourself on fire seems a little violent to me. His calm, unwavering dedication to this terrible task made me believe that Buddhism must require complete mastery over the body. That attracted me in the same way I became interested in distance running as an exercise of mind over body. Buddhism demands detachment as a path to nirvana, which is not the path my own Irish and Mexican-Catholic roots naturally lead me down - emotions run high. But I can appreciate the meditative qualities of Buddhism, the act of being present and mindful, and the effort it requires to exist in that state.
I even had some precedence for Buddhism in my own life, though as tended to be the case in my family, I had to back into it tangentially. My Uncle Glen was a Buddhist. Let me back up. So my mom’s brother had escaped California in the 70’s because he had an overwhelming fear of earthquakes according to my mom. Glen joined the air force, and in the 80’s decided to settle in Japan of all places. I mean, Japan is sort of the earthquake capital of the world, is it not? You heard me. Come to think of it, this might have been around the time I realized that my mom was the unreliable narrator of our family history. Anyway, he married a Japanese woman and somewhere around the time I entered high school I can recall hearing my mom and grandma discuss the “weird” religion that Glen had joined while in Japan. They spoke in hushed tones so I knew this was not perceived as a good thing. When he came to visit my grandma and papa Glen had erected an odd little altar with a fat man on it in his bedroom. And he kneeled in front of it. My family discussed this turn of events as though this “religion” was much closer to cult on the continuum than legit. Frankly, I wasn’t paying that close of attention. I was trying to get through my freshman year of prep school and my oddball uncle was the least of my worries.
Flash forward almost 20 years to my sister’s wedding in 2001. My uncle flew in for the date and immediately unnerved everyone with his complete indifference to making small talk. I can recall him sitting motionless in my parents’ living room, rarely saying anything unless being engaged directly. Kind of like a statue of Buddha, in fact. It was 100% clear that he wasn’t really into the mindless chitchat that was the hallmark of any Chavez family gathering. I do remember that he was glued to his camera the whole weekend and at one point he shared with me his photography mission. His plan was to shadow the husband and wife team of photographers at the wedding and take all of the photos that they were not able to capture. I remember thinking, “oh-kaaaaay, weirdo.” Of course, before he flew back to Japan, he presented my sister with hundreds of photos from that day – most of the photos superior to the professional shots.
Now that I was a a grown-up (at least legally), I did have one conversation with Glen that weekend wherein I discovered that he was not in fact a member of some fringe pseudo-religion, but that he was instead a practicing Buddhist. Around this same time I was working at a high profile Architecture firm in Phoenix. One of the most high-performing architects with the most demanding workload as well as the most demanding personal life happened to be my professional hero. While pretty much the rest of the office scurried to and fro like nervous little rabbits and generally operated at a natural level of 9 on the 1-10 stress scale, this guy was cool. He was always impeccably dressed and never had anything near a sharp tone in his voice, let alone snapped at anyone. He never seemed overworked, and he managed to carve out time to chat with me from time to time in a completely focused and present way. I’d be working late, harried as usual, trying to make deadline and he would swing by and we would have a lovely chat on any number of topics. Our families, pop culture, music, travel, whatever. On the surface we had little in common. He was a Vietnamese immigrant who had migrated to the US during the war (he was only four or five at the time), and he was presently in an epic romantic battle with the US government to bring his Thai fiancée over so they could be married. Now you may think that this would have been fairly straightforward and easy, but after 9/11 there was a big crackdown on immigration and he was, in fact, not sure at all if they were ever going to let her in. So he was dealing with such personal and professional stress, but you’d just never know it. He was a mystery to me, mostly because I couldn’t see how he’d remain calm during mind-numbing meetings or impossible deadlines.
He finally shared with me (it was like pulling teeth to get it out of him) that his practice of Buddhism (NOT a religion, but a way of life) kept him centered. And what did a Buddhist Practice entail?
(1) Lead a moral life,
(2) Be mindful and aware of thoughts and actions, and
(3) Develop wisdom and understanding.
Duuuude. That sounded serious. But what I immediately latched onto was that a Buddhist practice was personal and did not revolve around the worship of a creator God. Enlightenment comes from within rather than from outside, which was also a marvel to me. Buddhists are tolerant of all other religions, so in theory you could be a practicing Catholic AND Buddhist. Meditation rather than prayer is the focus. Death is tolerated as a part of the life process as well and not seen as something to fear. Buddhists do believe in a sort of reincarnation and that the ancestors are always with us. This was highly appealing to me and my religious flailings at the time. I even asked my co-worker if I could attend a Service with him, and he seemed enthusiastic, but life gets in the way sometimes and we never managed to make it happen.
In my own history, I had very few instances where I felt in the presence of God and each time I had somehting akin to a religious experience, it was related somehow to being outside in nature. Once, in the Czech Republic countryside I was on a bike ride and felt an otherworldliness. The sun on my face, the wind whipping by me. I have no other words to describe it. I felt the presence of…something. Something bigger than me. I felt both very small and a part of something much larger. I’m not sure what people feel when they are talking to God because I don’t, but it must feel something like what I felt on that day.
About ten years ago, I was traveling in Vietnam with a bunch of Aussies. My dad, a Vietnam vet himself, had responded with a mix of surprise and confusion when he heard I was planning to "go to there". “Why would you want to go THERE, Shannon?” He looked at me with an almost wounded expression. I couldn’t really say. Really I just wanted to see the country for myself. I had read all the books and seen all the war movies, but though they were thrilling, it wasn’t my experience. I wanted to visit another place. I wanted to ride on the Reunification Express. I wanted to walk in a rice paddy. I wasn’t sure why I wanted to go, honestly. I was motivated by adventure and this seemed like a good one.
Now is as good a time as any in this story to mention that, until this trip, I was also a skeptic about spirits. No, not alcohol. Booze and I were on very good terms. I just didn’t believe in ghosts. So, like I said I was on this trip in Vietnam, traveling leisurely throughout the south of the country with a group of Australian friends, easy-peasy. My initial fears of being a hated American in Vietnam proved wrong almost before I left the airport. For better or for worse, all the locals saw when I got off the airplane were dollar signs. The Vietnamese were all apparently rapacious Capitalists disguised as Communists and everyone seemed hustling to make a buck. The worst of it was having to walk through crowds of vendors/hucksters with their perfect English patter: “Lady? Lady? Wanna buy a postcard? See? See? Same same but dfferent. Come on lady. I give you good price.” It got kind of exhausting but it was hardly the cold reception I had expected. I had a blast in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and the Mekong Delta, visited some small villages and the sunny beaches of Nha Trang (where soldiers like my dad used to vacation on their furlongs in country). I was having the time of my life. We learned how to cook amazing fish delicacies. We took a boat out and swam all afternoon, lazily picnicking on a giant fisherman’s feast.
Then we pulled into the city of Hue in the center of the country. And that’s when my good time went all to shit. The second we reached the city limits I was in trouble. I had the eerie feeling of people actively hating on me. How to explain it exactly? Passersby on the street would look at me with barely disguised disgust. It sincerely felt like people were wearing those creepy plastic clear face masks so there was one expression (a tight-lipped, polite smile on top) with the blurry edges beneath barely containing an expression of anger and bared teeth. Not everyone hated me, but one out of every few people which made it even weirder. Some vendors would ignore me and wouldn’t take my money. I thought I caught a couple of men actively spitting in my direction. The buildings themselves, with their beautiful, decaying, French Colonial edifices seemed to press in on the wide boulevards, malevolently looming over me. Food didn’t taste right. I’d go to dig into some Pho at a market, and I’d get a fleeting flash of rotting meat on my taste buds. Most disturbing was that I started hearing voices. Yup. Literally hearing voices. Like, I would hear someone whispering just under intelligible range into my ear, and when I would swing my head around to see who was there, the street would be empty. So, to say I thought I might be losing my mind, was not an exaggeration. I was freaking the eff out.
Then, that first night, I had a combination of nightmare/night terrors the likes of which I had never suffered from before. At one point in the night, I actually thought I saw a shadow rise from the foot of the bed and start to take form. Did I mention I was freaking the eff out? And the best part was that we were going to be in Hue for four long nights. I really just wanted to stay in my hotel room and I would have except I was living my own personal version of "Nightmare on Elm Street" and if I fell asleep these demon shadow figures were torturing me. Sleep deprived and exhausted, I seriously debated flying home on day three but ultimately decided to suck it up and stay. That night, a local guide dining with us innocently remarked that I didn’t look very well and was I suffering from traveler’s diarrhea. Yeah, I half-snarled at him, I looked like shit because I couldn’t sleep. Without missing a beat and I will never forget the exact phrase he used he said, “Yes. This is typical of Americans traveling to Hue. This city is not hospitable to you. Many young boys and men died here. You are sitting on top of a graveyard right now. Our city was destroyed.” And then he nonchalantly went back to slurping his delicious soup. Wha? How had I managed to not know this? I traveled all the way to Vietnam without knowing that one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War had occurred in Hue? Had I not picked up a history book? No. I had not picked up a history book. Come on, that would have been almost un-American of me to come to a country anywhere near well-versed in the specifics of its history. Instead of this news freaking me out more however, I was actually relieved to have an explanation other than “Shannon has gone around the bend” to cling to. I could bide my time.
The concept was easy for me to understand, actually. In the Buddhist teachings, the ancestors are literally always with us. This is why a lot of Asian cultures treat their elders with so much more respect than we treat our elderly. The older you grow, the more wisdom you are assumed to have in Buddhist teachings. And when you die, your spirit remains to watch over the family, sometimes even influencing the course of history. I found this explanation for my house of horrors somewhat comforting. And we only had one night left for me to suffer through.
The next day we traveled by the national vehicle (scooter) through the countryside away from Hue.* The further we drove the more I felt the darkness lifting up and away from me. It was literally a physical lightening. I know, it does sound batty. I don’t care. We headed into a heavily forested area and down an unpaved road. As we passed underneath the trees, they rustled gently. The road grew more and more narrow and finally we came to a dead end. As I got off the scooter and removed my helmet, the trees around me tinkled musically (I know, I know. But it happened). A little brown adorable dog trotted up, cocked his head quizzically at me, and bounded off down a barely perceptible path. Of course, I followed. As I followed him into a clearing, the low slung traditional buildings of a Buddhist Temple came into focus and I could hear the monks chanting. This is the temple we were visiting and this is the chanting that we heard.* You won’t insult me if you find it underwhelming. I myself do not have the same reaction now, watching a youtube video. I’m okay with that. Let me just say that at the time I was feeling spiritually bereft and this place felt like home to me. I did not speak their language, I did not understand their tradition.I was an American in their house of worship and they welcomed me. The monks and novices (for as it turns out this was a teaching institution), were utterly disarming. And though I had this picture in my mind of Buddhism being a very serious undertaking (I mean, religion is no joke ya’ll) these students were sly and funny and having a great time, playing pranks on one another and quite clearly enjoying themselves. Some of the novices were tapped to prepare a simple meal for us and the older monks. So we ate alongside them and generally had a lovely afternoon. I did not want to leave.
I think this is where I come to a sort of religious crossroads in my own mind. I believe in reincarnation in a very gritty way, the bodies of those that pass break down and out of those molecules come the next generations of well, everything. Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return. There is beauty in that knowledge for me. I may not believe in a “heaven”, but I do believe that those of us who die are still with us in a very tangible way. And now I had even been haunted by some very skilled spirits. Now…how to school the wee ones. More tomorrow.
*Incidentally, neither of these videos are mine, though they do accurately depict the experiences I had and the places I visited on my trip.
So, to pick up where we left off yesterday in my little spiritual disco dance away from Catholicism, I pretty much went through the motions until I graduated from high school. And what exactly did that look like? It was mostly fun, actually! One of the ways in which Catholic school trains their young ‘uns up for adult participation is that our involvement in the Mass starts early. So, while most people might have at least a passing familiarity with altar boys, there were also opportunities for the ladies to get involved right around the time puberty kicked in. Specifically, girls had the opportunity to read scripture passages that were part of the Mass. Why would pre-teens be interested in helping out at any religious ceremonies (aside from our devotion and dedication to our Lord Jesus Christ?) Well, the lure for me (and I’m quite certain many others) was closely tied to getting out of the first (and sometimes second) period at school. The criteria for being a reader seemed to be ever-changing. Certainly you had to have a decent public speaking voice. The nuns and priests also dangled these assignments like carrots and doled them out based on your ability to get a good citizenship grade. My citizenship grade was typically subpar (Shannon is constantly socializing, often to her detriment), but because I was both a lifelong reader and shameless performer I usually got tapped for reading assignments anyway.
It felt exactly like being in a secret cool club to be sprung from class and allowed access to the sacristy before morning Mass. We were mostly unsupervised, with the priests generally showing up right before the services. It's actually shocking to me now that we were given that much rope to hang ourselves with. I could be remembering this wrong, but I think as we got to be a little older, that a particularly responsible altar boy was even given the keys to the sacristy. One of the more rebellious altar dudes would usually mention how easy it would be to pilfer some wine from the Priests’ stash, though it seemed to mostly be a lot of bravado and pre-teen machismo. For all of the talk of drinking the wine/getting access to a chalice, it just never happened. I guess the adults assumed we wouldn’t misbehave, being on God’s personal A-team for the morning. And I guess they were right, though I can’t quite wrap my head around how our group of numskulls could have been perceived as anything other than the crafty little monkeys we were. I never recall gloating to my less fortunate classmates about our secret society. This was purely a move for self-preservation. I didn't need any competition. While the other kids might have thought we were just hella Holy nerds, they had NO IDEA how much goofing off went on (LOTS) in the service of Jesus.
In any event, I had a keen understanding that the “reader” role was a bone generally tossed to girls not allowed to actually engage with the consecration or do the more meaningful tasks surrounding the Mass. I was too young to have developed the finely honed moral outrage that would come into play after my first Feminist Studies class in college, but I was hitting JUST the right age to realize that girls were marginalized in the church. Again, I had a fondness for posing the tough question and I didn’t shy away from posing them in class. “Sister? Why are women not permitted to be priests? Do you think we ever will be?”
“Shannon, that is a great question. We believe that when we are called to serve God, that we are called to a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience. And we believe that we are married to the Lord.”
Ok. Not exactly answering my question. If at first you don’t succeed. “I guess what I mean is why can’t women be priests?”
“That is not our role, dear. The New Testament tells us that while women can “publicly pray and prophesy in church (1 Cor. 11:1–16), they could not teach or have authority over a man (1 Tim. 2:11–14), since these were two essential functions of the clergy. Nor could women publicly question or challenge the teaching of the clergy (1 Cor. 14:34–38).” Um. Bummer. And furthermore, WTF? I was only eleven or twelve, but I had already had enough Old and New Testament classes to know that the Catholics “interpreted” the Bible pretty generously. We were not fundamentalists. I mentally called bullshit on this whole line of thinking. Sounded like a convenient and antiquated way to keep baby in the corner.
In any event, at eleven or twelve, I was already interested in boys and I was less interested in church politics. So I tabled my sense of injustice and decided to give free reign to my sense of play instead. We were all engaged in random kissing games on the playground so it was an odd juxtaposition to witness these same guys I played Truth or Dare with getting serious and pious and both acting like and getting treated as miniature grown-ups by the priests and other parishioners. Typically, the morning Mass was just that – a simple, almost rote Service attended mostly by the elderly in the neighborhood. To shake things up, occasionally there would be a funeral, and though I was initially skeeved out by being on funeral detail, I quickly became as blasé about corpses and open caskets as anyone could. I mean, we were getting out of class! That trumps the creepy factor every single time. Also, there were rumors (never confirmed) that the altar boys would make bank on these special assignments. Just as the best man tips out the officiant at a wedding, grateful family members of the deceased would usually give the priests some financial renumeration and the attending altar boys would get a cut. That was like the Holy Grail of all assignments. Like I said, these were rumors, never confirmed.
The first time I was ever drunk was also (yikers!) at a church function. During my seventh grade year, we were gathered together one afternoon and told that the girls with the best citizenship grades would be tapped for a very special assignment with the priests and nuns from the Diocese at large. These little ladies would be on the public stage in front of Orange County’s Catholic bigwigs. I felt a brief flush of shame and then immediately tuned out, owing to the fact that I (once again) knew that I wasn’t going to be on that task force. I had just that morning had my hand slapped for passing notes, or a slam book, or one of these thingies. It was fine, no biggie. My hero was Harriet the Spy. I did not need the validation of the Catholic elite. I was a lone wolf, hell bent on world domination through snarky note passing. (A closer look at my old passed notes collection reveals a young lady with ADD and possibly a propensity towards delusions of grandeur).
So no one was more surprised than me to hear my name called as one of those selected to serve. This was before the days of transparency, so I recall being furtively hustled out of the class to get our marching orders. “So long minions! We’ve got an assignment!” We were gathered in the school auditorium with a dozen or so girls from the other 7th and 8th grade classes. It seems that the Diocese was having a spaghetti dinner at our school hall and we, the sweet, sweet models of the Virgin Mary herself, had been selected to do server duty. As in waitress. Once again, as in countless times before, I realized we had been duped. We were sold a false bill of goods! Servers? Servers? SERVERS. I was no Mary Magdalene. I didn’t want to wash feet* (Though I know I should be honored by the job I was not hardwired for subservience). The assignment, should we choose to accept it (who was I kidding? As if we had a choice), required a white shirt and black pants. It wasn’t even something that would get us out of school – we had to give up our scant out-of-school time to participate. Blast it all.
Anyway, to my chagrin the night of the spaghetti dinner came and my mom dropped me off at the school. My friend Liz’s mom was going to bring us home. Once inside the hall, we got our specific assignment from one of the PTA ladies who were managing the kitchen. My duty was to keep the bread baskets and wine carafes full. Coincidentally, Liz and Julie were also assigned the “keep the bread and booze coming” post. At first, we were model citizens. I rose to the occasion, my middling Citizenship marks be damned! When I saw a bread basket close to empty or a carafe that needed replenishing, I’d speedily whisk them away to the kitchen staging area and throw some more rolls into the basket or pour some more wine from a giant gallon bottle of Rossi back into the carafe. I was a model of Catholic girlhood. I was the Virgin Mary come to life. But it quickly became crystal clear that the couple hundred priests and nuns in attendance were being, how shall we say, less attentive than normal. I mean, they sat down to a boozy, snoozy carb fest and they can hardly have been expected to keep tabs on a bunch of preteen ninnies (which is precisely what we were). Now I had never even had so much as a sip of alcohol, but somewhere along the way we made the collective decision (I swear not a word was spoken – raised eyebrows and knowing hard looks was all it took) and decided to stop refilling the carafe “empties” which had anywhere from a splash to a glass of wine at the bottom. We were going to shake shit up! We were on a mission in girl power before there was such a thing! WE were subversive! WE were rebels with a cause! WE were gonna get wasted. On the spot I became a red wine connoisseur. A near empty would go into the kitchen, where I would personally drain it and then refill with some new wine. And on it went. At some point in the evening, things started to get a little fuzzy around the edges, but I do recall we were invited to eat while the program for the dinner got underway. At that point, any sober diner would easily have been able to determine that me, and my two partners in crime were simply three sheets to the wind. We were giggling inappropriately, weaving while sitting, talking in grossly loud baby voices on purpose. But because the event guests were all feeling a little woozy themselves and their attention was directed at the speakers on the stage, we squeaked by. I do recall an elderly nun glancing sharply in my direction at one point. Her ferrety little knowing eyes said, “I know what you are up to missy and I don’t like it ONE BIT!” Or she may have said it out loud. Like I said, I was pretty drunk.
After we sloshed our way through serving the dessert course, “Cannoli anyone?” Liz’s mom appeared out of nowhere and just in the nick of time to chauffeur us home. On the car ride, I recall an increasingly uneasy conversation between myself and the mom in question. Liz passed out almost immediately and started snoring, leaving me to have one of those drunken conversations with parents that is the bane of underage drinkers everywhere.
Nervously white-knuckling the steering wheel, “Shannon? Sweetie? My goodness. They really put you girls to work! You all must be very, very tired.” (Nervous laughter).
“Whell, yesh. We worked hard, Mrs. Keegen. Work, work, work. That’s us. Whistle while you work. Hehehe and all that stuff.” (Hiccup!) I could see all six of her eyes widen in horror in the rear view mirror. This might require some additional finessing. I went on. “Hmmmm? (self-conscious giggle). Oh, Mrs. Keegen. We are. We are tired.” Hiccup! (Giggle). Slurring, “We are sho tiret because it was a long night. A looooong night. (Giggle. Hiccup. BURRRRP).
Even in my drunken state I knew that Mrs. K would never ask me if I was drunk. There was no way we COULD be. We were at a church function. With Priests. And nuns for Christ’s sake. As we pulled up to my house, I legitimately wondered (aloud? quite possibly) if my legs would carry me up the walk. My mom was inside and she was going to want a play-by -play that I was presently incapable of performing. I thought about lying down in the row of bushes surrounding the wall around our property and just taking a little nap. Nahhhh. I’ll go see my mom. She’s a nice lady. Mommy. So I weaved up the walk and tried the door. Locked. Rats. I’d have to knock. As my mother turned on the porch light and swung open the door, I smiled at her through half-closed, half-crossed eyes. “Hi mommy!” I waved coquettishly, and promptly barfed red wine and copious amounts of spaghetti with meat sauce all over her porch. And that, my friends, is how to properly do it up at a church function as a twelve-year-old. Holla! It was also the first and last time I had a drink until I was in college. I woke up the next morning feeling like William S. Burroughs (kinda looked like him too).
There were other twists and turns in my walk away from organized religion, but nothing ever so salacious as that night. I tried to wrap my head around the bacchanalia that the Priests and nuns seemed to enjoy when we were not around compared to the united front of discipline and sobriety that we encountered in school. There was no humanity there. My own mom and dad spoke in reverent tones when discussing priests and nuns. In capital letters and as though they were superhuman. I mean, to them I believe they were. I don’t think that in my parents’ childhood there was ever even a glimpse at the little man behind the curtain. Back then kids literally were beaten in class for speaking out of turn. The permissiveness of the 1980’s and the need for the church to see itself as cool indirectly helped me see the inner workings and all that messy people stuff in there without the fear and awe. I mean, it also helped that I was never in physical fear of having my knuckles rapped with a yardstick or having to balance books on my outstretched arms for hours. The post-WWII parochial schools of the US were SCARRRY. They could have dropped some of those nuns or priests right into Abu Ghraib and no one would have been the wiser. My mom and dad grew up with some religious role models with TEETH. But they were people, just like you and me and they were not perfect. Recent history has shown that the Roman Catholic Church has an almost pathologic need to protect its own elders rather than its children which is just completely effed up, but setting that house of horrors aside, the very fabric of the dogma is so restrictive that nearly everyone OUTSIDE the church believe it cannot be sustained. There will have to be reforms if the church is to survive. I think of my friends who have continued on in the Church, taking on greater responsibilities and authority and I’m looking to you to help make changes. Tomorrow: Yay Buddhism!
*In case anyone wants to call me out on my historical accuracy, I already know. There is no scriptural reference for Mary Magdalene being the foot washer of lore, though she is often associated with the story.
The next few posts are a bit of a departure for me because I don’t usually talk about spiritual matters here (or anywhere, really). Both Tim and I grew up in very religious families, but neither of us identify with any particular religion today. Now that we have Daisy and Townes, I feel the necessity to examine my own feelings about spirituality and what we might teach our kids. This one is for my dad, actually, who I know reads my posts and who I am afraid this one might initially disturb (I secretly think my dad is fearing for my eternal soul. He’s Catholic. It would be weirder if he didn’t). But dad! Bear with me! It gets better. My mom and dad are pretty much the nicest people in the world and they raised me right. I do not quibble with their choice to enroll me in parochial school. It made me a better person. I LIKED Catholic school and I am (somewhat shockingly) even still friends with some of those same kids today. I love that my mom and dad have faith and go to church and I appreciate that they raised me with a very specific playbook on how to be a decent human being. My dad is really the only person who has called me out for not going to church but he has a light touch. As always, he tries to lob lessons in my direction with humor. I do still attend Mass when I visit them, because it is important to my mom and dad and I am not an asshole. Actually, I am an asshole and I am constantly in a wrestling match with myself to be a better daughter and this is one small way I can show them I am trying. So if I have to pay the price of my dad mentioning after Mass how surprised he is that the church is still standing and didn't fall down in a million pieces after I go in, I’m ok with that.
Things that do trouble me about not being religious:
So – not a long list at all. But #3 especially is kind of a monster and pretty worrisome.
Even though I grew up Roman Catholic, attended parochial school until the 11th grade and went to mass every week until moving out of my parents’ house, (shocking fact alert) I never pray. That’s right. It is not something I do. I do not TALK TO GOD. The only time I ever have TALKED TO GOD was when my maternal grandmother was on her deathbed, and even then my prayers were for her to be at peace and not in pain. I think I panic prayed once or twice when both my mom and dad (on two separate occasions) were hospitalized with some emergency medical problems. Panic praying, for those of you uninitiated in the neuroses of agnostics, is what we do when someone close to us is in peril. It causes you to reach out to God in the following grasping and weasley, apologetic way. “Uh, hey God. I mean, I know I don’t think you even exist, but just on the off chance that you do…um, I’m wondering if you could please look out for me and make sure my mom/dad come home okay. I mean, I know that if I were you I’d probably not be all that interested in helping me out since in my day-to-day existence when people bring you up it makes me uncomfortable owing to the fact that it’s usually an entrée to being asked to participate in someone else’s idea of what is correct, but hear me out. I’m just asking for this one small favor (in the giant existential picture it’s pretty small potatoes for you to keep my little family safe from catastrophe, right?)Yep I’m shameless in that I even resorted to an attempt to emotionally manipulate God. “I mean, God? If that IS in fact your name – one of the reasons I stopped going to church and generally believing in you is that there are an awful lot of “church-going” people over here that use their belief in you to justify a lot of un-Christian behavior (or at least justify their interpretation of Christian behavior which I think is almost as disrespectful).
I was never able to understand the condescension, pity and need to justify a narrow view of religion that so many believers bring to discussions of faith (outside of the Buddhists gotta love ‘em but I’ll get to them later). And the same way religious people probably pity me/worry for my soul for my lack of Godliness, I wonder at someone’s ability to put so much stock in, well, a bunch of thrilling tales, which is ultimately how I view the Bible. I mean the Bible is some crazy, fantastical, well-written, sometimes beautiful, oftentimes gory storytelling shiz, but at the end of the day it’s the grand-daddy of all storybooks. Written and rewritten over the years by MEN and interpreted and reinterpreted through the ages. An amazing piece of history? Maybe? But that’s where it stops with me.
Having grown up in one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse cities in southern California (Long Beach), and having already spent many hours with families who celebrated many different kinds of spirituality, I felt unsettled by a lot of what I was hearing in religion class fairly early (i.e. the WE’RE on the right path, ya’ll. Everyone else is goin’ to hell dogma). As a Roman Catholic kid attending school in the 1980’s, we had religion class every day and attended Mass once a week whether we needed it or not (I’m sure the Sisters and Fathers thought we were getting off easy). This is where I need to acknowledge that this post may come off as an argument to keep your kids around “their own kind” but bear with me. I feel like I was enriched by my experiences with kids from lots of cultures. I even had a Hmong friend (look it up).
I had broken bread at any number of diverse tables before I was even out of middle school. I mean, having international friends was not without its pitfalls. At ten I was not so excited to try Injera (Ethiopian flat bread) or any number of international desserts. Truly, I could deal with most dinners but the dessert course would almost always cause my heart to race and give me the signs of what I now recognize as an anxiety attack. If there was one rule that my mom had pounded into my head about the very activity of going to dinner at another family’s house it was that you tried everything and were POLITE no matter how much you did not like the dinner. In my world, most families were of modest means and you did not waste food. Shut up and eat. Having said that, my personal United Nations had given me specifically an overwhelming aversion to Greek, Cuban and Indian pastries for YEARS. Desserts are not supposed to taste like FLOWERS, Ritesh! But I digress. The point is that I had a multicultural smorgasbord of friends and they and their parents all seemed like good people. Kind people. People that would give the coat off their back. Turn the other cheek. Etc., etc. The lessons that parents were teaching in my friend Claudia’s African-American house, or Amiris Fraga’s Cuban family compound or the Nguyen’s Vietnamese-immigrant apartment seemed more or less about the same as the lessons I was getting in my house. There were a lot of over-worked and underpaid parents in these homes, but they all seemed on par with my mom and dad in terms of being good, moral people with a lot of BIG love for their families. Of course the Nguyen’s place had a tiny altar with fascinating tchotchkes and a pillow to kneel on in one corner of the living room and Claudia’s mom went to a church on Sunday that was just way more fun than our church. The preacher was always screaming at everyone (and sweating!), but the choir really did seem to be sent from above and you didn’t just want to tap your toes, there was full on clapping and shimmying going on in THAT house of worship. Plus, all the ladies and men dressed up for God. That seemed appropriate to me. In sum, notwithstanding the weird and often disgusting gelatinous sweets these folks ingested on a daily basis, they all seemed an awful lot like the Catholic compatriots we knew from church and school. Go figure.
My mom and dad moved us to the mostly homogeneous climes of Orange County at the beginning of my 5th grade year, but we lived in Anaheim which is kind of the seedy underbelly of the OC (Disneyland aside). In other words, the Pho and Daal was still in great supply. In our daily religion class one morning at the beginning of fifth grade we had a special guest star. He was one of the parish Priests, let’s call him Father Mike (in my head they all sort of seem like they were named Father Mike. In the 80’s priests and the Catholic Church in general were trying to be more cool. A lot of the priests were young-ish and played the guitar). We had been told that we could ask him anything and I was ready. When it came time for me to have the floor, I asked where Father thought the Buddhists and the Jews and the Hindus and the Muslims and the Baptists were all going if only the Catholics got to go to heaven. I don’t remember the exact answer he gave me, but I can recall being completely unsatisfied and disappointed in the response. It threw him off his game. He beat around the bush. He hemmed and hawed. He refused to say that they were going to hell, but he did some hearts and flowers number about how we, as good Catholic kids, were responsible for making these “lost souls” come around to our way of thinking. I pressed on. “But father? Isn’t it true that the Hindus and the Jews and the Muslims all think that THEY have it right and that WE are WRONG? Meaning, aren’t they trying to get us to see their point of view? Don’t they think we are lost?” More throat clearing and tap-dancing and soft-pedaling. Even at ten-years-old, I could sense the snake oil in his uninspiring response. I mean, he was a young guy. He probably didn’t have his “tough questions” script finalized. But it created a rift in me that I never recovered from to this day. All politics aside, I don’t feel I could ever attend a church that didn’t preach ACCEPTANCE above all else. I think that’s why I dig on the Buddhists, in my superficial Western way. More tomorrow.(No, I am not converting to Buddhism, dad). Relax.
I am a maker of lists. I love ‘em. Now that I’ve started a mega-positive creative project, I just need to purge the ugly so to speak. So here goes. Read at your own peril. I know a couple of people who could write this better than I ever could (I'm talking to you Brandon and Josh) but that’s okay. I’m gonna give it a shot.
THE SHITE LIST
As in Git Fit Fool
a 90 Day Project
I’ve been toying with the idea of doing some sort of online project – inspired by very personal and creative projects such as the forty days of dating project and the 52 photos project. I was thinking my own contribution to this idea would relate to Townes and Daisy, but the more I mulled it over, the more it became clear that this was going to have to be a fitness project. Yes, I am a new mom and yes this is ground well covered by better bloggers than I. But I’m not really fazed by that fact. You know why? Because I am patently MISERABLE in my out-of-shape-ness. Drastic times call for drastic measures. So I am cribbing the format directly from Jessica and Timothy at forty days of dating and I am going to document PUBLICLY my 90 day effort to get in shape.
In case I generate any sort of blowback in reference to this post from the feminist blogosphere hoi polloi I want to say that though I have always been a very small-framed woman with no weight issues, as a now a not-so-small woman with developing weight issues, I do not believe this is particularly about my vanity or unreasonable expectations. And I'm referring to the unrealistic expectations that the mass media and the fashion industry have supposedly foisted upon me. I am a grown-up. I'm not trying to get back to pre-baby levels of fitness in 6 weeks a la half of Hollyweird. I simply feel like crap since I have gained weight. And I have aches and pains the likes of which I never have suffered from before. Therefore, I see a direct correlation between my general good health and my previously small frame. Deal with it. I want to get healthy. I am getting my mojo back. So there.
I’m not going to post about this while I am doing it, but will share all the gory details including photos (I said it) starting in November after I have finished the project. Wish me luck. I am going to need it. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming. Suck it fatness.
Have a great weekend! I really needed a little levity this week for sure. These links are laugh out loud hilarious. Not LOL hilarious. LAUGH OUT LOUD.
Oh man. So funny
Crappy pictures and narwhals. Cannot lose.
I mean. This has been round and round the internet a million times already. But it still makes me laugh. Hard. Not for you conservative folk.
If Cormac yelped. (For the lit geeks.)
It’s the middle of the year in 2013 and as happens sometimes, I am feeling sort of reflective about where we have been so far and where our family is going. I have a few thoughts for your older selves to read someday. These are just random thoughts in no particular order.